Illustration by Dave Shulman
I almost hate to bring this up. Feelings about 9/11 are glowing hot like the obliterated-but-still-smoldering World Trade Center towers themselves. The body count remains speculative. We literally haven’t gotten to the bottom of the towers yet, to say nothing of the bottom of the whole bewildering terrorist ordeal that has landed our military in a remote country that up to now we have cozily associated with big dogs and patchwork throw blankets. Here at home the government’s message is that Americans should respond to extraordinary circumstances extraordinarily, meaning that we should suspend any disbelief or criticism about its plan of action, or if we can’t do that, at least keep our mouths shut. There are issues of national security, after all, of vanquishing an enemy that is depending on our very disunity to achieve its goals; we can’t give them the satisfaction.
Part of me would like to hold up such a front, just as I reported not long ago that I actually wanted to wave a flag, yet I can’t, because — I must bring it up — black people have a different point of view. If anybody cares to hear this, polls and more informal temperature takings are finding that, while the majority of blacks support the war, it is a markedly smaller majority than you find among whites, which leaves lots of room for a certain wariness among black folk toward so-called national interests — wariness that’s grown as American as apple pie. That blacks and whites have different perspectives on the same issue is hardly news in the larger scheme of American history — that isAmerican history, for God’s sake. But in the small scheme, in the increasingly airless debate about Afghanistan et al., the black difference is being roundly ignored.
The racial gap on this issue is not so black and white, in more ways than the obvious. A Pew Research Center poll recently found that 90 percent of whites supported the recent bombings, versus 70 percent of blacks. I would wager that even the word support means different things to these two groups, but I’m reasonably sure that the black percentage of those not in favor have some qualitatively different doubts than their white counterparts. Anti-war whites are assumed to be, by and large, peace activists or social progressives or some other kind of philosophical objectors whose philosophy was forged during some critical event, like the civil rights movement or the Red scare or even the WTO protests. Blacks may overlap in that regard, but their main grievance is, and has always been, with a power structure that has never granted them full citizenship status. The patriotism the Bush administration expects us to pull out and dust off like a good suit blacks have had to forge through a history of homegrown terrorism that began with slavery intensified after Reconstruction and persists to one degree or another today, economically, emotionally, psychologically. You try that at home.
There are other impediments. Hearing the White House declare a kind of vigilante justice campaign on terrorism inflames a not-too-distant cultural memory. During a recent black forum held at Howard University that looked at American foreign policy and the advisability of war, one black reverend remarked that in calling for Osama bin Laden dead or alive, “Bush was calling out the posse, and black people know the posse. They come by and get you in the middle of the night and kill you without due process.” Nor is fear of this sort of justice exclusively ours: At the forum, entitled “A Black Community National Dialogue,” panelists included Latinos, Koreans and other ethnics who have historical reasons to regard the current American nationalism skeptically, if not downright suspiciously. Arab-Americans, now the target of brand-new and patently unconstitutional FBI probes, may soon have no choice but to join the ranks of the wronged. Columbia University professor Manning Marable noted in a recent article that equating skin color with anti-American sentiment began with blacks — proof that they were foreigners in their own country.
Yet, if I may return to my original point, what gets me is that black people are classified as dissidents at all. Clamoring for equality guaranteed by our own government has gotten us an enmity we hardly deserve, though, after many generations, raising objections to the status quo is now nearly encoded into our DNA, to the point that black dissentsounds somewhat redundant. But as with most other things black, it has a very particular and unforgiven history — Nat Turner, Malcolm X, Marcus Garvey, the Panthers, even that paragon of peace Martin Luther King Jr., who in his day was branded a threat not just to domestic but international security. Politically restive Negroes have always been considered especially dangerous because what they wanted — the ballot, equitable education — wasn’t up for negotiation. The latest instance of black unrest, lest we forget (and since 9/11 we’ve forgotten much), is last year’s hijacking of the presidential election. It was an election that Bush appeared to have procured at the expense of black people and at the expense of voting rights secured not very long ago; once again an uncomfortably recent cultural memory was pricked open.